Chargers Aren't Only Ones Depending on No. 14, Now That He's Working in Real Estate Loans : BANKING ON FOUTS : C

Times Staff Writer

It's nearly noon, the peak of the business day, but in a corner of the bustling Golden Triangle near La Jolla, there is almost no sign of life.

Near the front door of a spanking-new, mid-rise office tower adjacent to University Town Centre, a big blue luxury import has the brick driveway to itself. Water cascades in a fountain, drowning out the construction noise from across the street.

The wait for an elevator, naturally, is brief. On the third floor, a worker in a hard hat, finishing off some interior space, directs a visitor to the suite occupied by San Diego's newest mortgage brokerage, the only firm that's moved into the building.

No sooner does a secretary announce the intruder than a bearded gentleman in an ultrasuede blazer scrambles nimbly from his office.

Few Charger fans have seen him move with such alacrity, but they should be reassured that there is no trace of the groin and knee injuries that crippled Dan Fouts and had more than a little to do with his team's 7-9 record last year.

Never one to waver or doubt himself, Fouts is staking his name and some of his liquid assets on a new business venture even as he prepares for the concluding stanzas of his football career.

In tandem with his older brother Bob, Fouts has gone into the real estate lending business, serving commercial and residential borrowers. In a sense he's following the lead of another well-known quarterback, Roger Staubach, who heads a thriving real estate business in Dallas.

Against an array of older, established firms, Fouts Financial Co. displays roughly the same level of insecurity as Dan Marino showed in his second year with the Miami Dolphins.

For anyone who was out of the country, Marino in 1984 erased many of the records set a few years ago by No. 14 himself.

"I never got too excited about the records because they are doomed to fall, right?" Fouts said.

"We were just the first team to take advantage of the rules. The records were the result of the people we had and the way we played. Now people have copied what we did."

Fouts recently was rated the third-best quarterback in football by no less an expert than George Allen. In an article that appeared in TV Guide, Allen put Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers and Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers ahead of the San Diego veteran.

Those with a bias toward the National Football League might dismiss Kelly and look instead to Miami's brilliant young Marino as the most likely successor to the new mortgage mogul.

In any case, the headlines that only a couple of years ago automatically went to Fouts, now belong to others.

"I hear all the talk about Montana and Marino, and I have to chuckle," Fouts said. "Hey, I can still play and win some games.

"When I was young, they said the same things about me in relation to some other quarterbacks (like Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas). You're only up there for so long. You've got to live on the downside, too.

"I still expect to perform at a certain level. Whether the spotlight is still on me won't matter."

Fouts is not a seeker of the spotlight, at least not in the sense of cultivating the media like a Steve Garvey or a Kellen Winslow. But in his position as Charger No. 1-A, he has a hard time avoiding attention.

With the recent purge of nine veterans, the Chargers became even more a team in transition. Only about a quarter of the old guard that made up the glory teams of the late 1970s and early '80s remains on the roster.

Fouts is a link to the past, and still the team's best hope for the foreseeable future. A 5,000-yard season wouldn't hurt, but nearly as important is the way he handles himself. Owner Alex Spanos may be turning up the heat, but Fouts affects the same rugged nonchalance of a grizzled old test pilot.

"I don't know if I'll ever really be outgoing," Fouts said. "I take my job seriously, and I know the (need for) leadership is always going to be there.

"It's the nature of the job--the quarterback is in charge. I don't shy away from the responsibility. I enjoy it. But I'm not seeking extra responsibility. It comes with the game."

He wasn't looking for more responsibility when he got into the mortgage business, either. It happened almost by accident when he was searching for a loan to construct a home on his 1.5-acre spread at Rancho Santa Fe, just a couple of long spirals removed from the estate of former Charger owner Gene Klein.

Shopping for good terms, he turned to his brother Bob Fouts, 40, who was an executive with a Marin County financial brokerage and, before that, a loan officer.

Howard Slusher, Dan's agent and business adviser, was also consulted. With an eye to the future, he suggested the brothers consider forming a company. It took only a month, and the brothers have been in business for three months now.

Fouts was able to get himself a nice deal on a mortgage, and he is scheduled to move into his new place at Rancho Santa Fe in mid-September, not long after the start of the regular season. It's a 5,000-square foot, split-level adobe palace, about the same size as his two-story log cabin in the wilds of Oregon.

Fouts believes he has found an occupation that can sustain him once he is done trying to pass the Chargers back into the playoffs. That's a task he is due to take up next week, when veterans are required to report to training camp at UC San Diego.

"If someone were to tell you that after three or four years, you couldn't do your job anymore, that would be scary, wouldn't it?" he said. "A lot of players have a tough time with it.

"I wasn't uneasy about life after football because I'm pretty well set financially. But this is a new challenge, a new life after football."

The quarterback is moving into the final quarter of a career that has come almost full circle. Fouts can look back at the difficult early years, the sustained high of the team's successful period and its decline of the past two seasons.

He is bullish on the Chargers.

"I feel very good physically," Fouts said. "My optimism surely isn't diminished. I get fidgety and hard to live with this time of year, when I start looking at the schedule and reading the papers again."

Fouts is chagrined by the failures of the past two seasons, but he hasn't dismissed the achievements that preceded them.

"We fell short of winning the Super Bowl, but we still did pretty good, I think," Fouts said. "For a lot of reasons, I want to win again, and I think it's within our grasp. I expect to have a better defense, and with Trumaine Johnson and Kellen Winslow, we can be as devastating as ever on offense. I don't look at our great era being completely over."

Fouts is assuming that Winslow will recover from his knee injury and that Johnson will prove to be as gifted a receiver as he looked in the United States Football League.

"James Harris (the former reserve Charger quarterback) told me he's a real player and he will help us," Fouts said. "That's good enough for me."

Of course, Johnson still has to prove it to Fouts on the field. Ironically, several years ago Fouts entertained a lucrative offer from a USFL owner named Bill Tatham, the same gentleman from whom Johnson just purchased his freedom.

It's not that Fouts doesn't believe there are talented players in the other league. He admires the skills of Kelly and his former backup, Ed Luther, among others. It's just that he doesn't think so highly of the linebackers and defensive backs who made the USFL a passer's dream.

Despite the Chargers' problems of the past two years, Fouts has never regretted his decision to pass up the USFL. He turned down as much or more cash than he got from Klein, but the stability of the NFL was his main consideration.

Prospective borrowers should be pleased to observe that he places such stock on stability, like a proper banker should.

Fouts has much to learn about mortgage banking, but he's not starting at ground zero, either. He's done his homework, according to brother Bob.

"It's unbelievable that Dan agreed to do this," he said. "He really put his name on the line."

"Hey, you've got the same last name," Dan said. "Besides, you can't bank on something as shallow as a name. You go to the bank on good service."

Fouts has sunk some of his own earnings into the enterprise, but he declined to suggest how much.

"It's not a substantial investment in terms of dollars and cents," he said, "but it is a big investment in time and our future.

"I mean, who can you trust? You pick up the paper everyday and there's another athlete who's lost a lot of his money in a business deal."

Fouts Financial is dealing with more than 100 lending institutions, some of which offer a dozen or so loan packages. The backbone of the business is residential lending.

"We analyze an individual's situation, then place him with the best loan," Bob Fouts said.

The pairing of the brothers was not exactly a natural. Dan is six years younger, so the boys were not that close. Bob's greatest athletic achievement, he said, was survival. That brought a hearty laugh from Dan, who has not finished a season on his feet since 1982.

Aside from his health, the elder brother's other significant athletic feat was pitching a youth league no-hitter. "My first idol," Dan said.

Fouts is a good bet to pick up the essentials of the mortgage business faster than he became an accomplished NFL quarterback.

The early years with the Chargers were an unhappy time, and largely a waste. Fouts said he sees few if any parallels to the Chargers' present predicament.

"There's really no comparison," he said. "In 1973, this team was in such turmoil, total disarray. The coaches wouldn't let Johnny (Unitas) work with me, and I didn't have a quarterback coach, as such. It was a tragedy to waste Johnny's knowledge and talent."

Fouts didn't really learn the job until 1976 under Bill Walsh.

"He would take me out on the field every day by myself," Fouts said. "He worked with me for three months or more. He showed me how to set up, how to hold the ball, where to throw and why. That's a large part of my success."

In the brilliant period from 1978 through 1982, Fouts was virtually injury-free. Since then, nearly every corner of his anatomy has been dinged and dented. He's simply at the mercy of his protectors.

"I'm sure age has something to do with the injuries, but I don't worry about aging," Fouts said. "I know the injuries are more closely correlated with the frequency you get hit. I don't take chances getting out of the pocket."

That's just the way Spanos wants it. That $40 million check he gave Klein last summer is only as good as the redesigned jersey on the back of Fouts.

If the quarterback feels the heat, he isn't letting on.

Picking his words carefully, Fouts said, "When there's a takeover in any business, they make a mark through discipline. It relaxes some later. Any time you go 7-9 and 6-10, people say you need discipline. I always thought we were businesslike in our big years."

Fouts is more concerned about pleasing himself than any critics.

"I compete with myself every down," he said. "I can tell how I'm doing by whether that chain marker is moving forward."

It usually does.

Charger Notes

The Chargers signed cornerback John Hendy, a third-round draft pick, to a three-year contract. . . . Also signed were linebacker Mark Fellows, quarterback Paul Berner and guard Jeff Smith. . . . Still unsigned are No. 1-pick Jim Lachey, an offensive tackle from Ohio State, safety Jeff Dale of LSU, a second-round pick, and punter-kicker Ralf Mojsiejenko of Michigan State, a fourth-round pick. . . . Veteran linebacker Linden King, also unsigned, has been taking part in informal workouts this week at the stadium. He is unsigned, but is hopeful an agreement can be reached before veterans are required to report July 26. "I'm being reasonable in what I'm asking," King said. "It's kind of frustrating not to be signed yet, but I've been having fun working with all these rookies." . . . The Chargers count 106 players on their current roster.

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